What are breathing treatments?

Many people breathe without giving it much thought. People with respiratory conditions, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), usually need breathing treatments to help them breathe freely.

During breathing treatments, medications enter the lungs through either an inhaler or a nebulizer. Both are only available with a prescription. They each have their own benefits and risks.

An inhaler is a handheld device that stores medication in a pressurized canister. It releases medication in aerosol form in your mouth. There are also nasal inhalers that release medication into your nose.

A nebulizer uses an air compressor to turn medication into a fine mist that you inhale through a face mask. Some nebulizers need to be plugged in. Others are portable and run on batteries.

While many respiratory conditions respond well to both inhalers and nebulizers, some may do better with one or the other.

Asthma treatment usually has two parts. The first involves fast-acting medication for flare-ups. The second includes preventive treatments to avoid those flare-ups.

The most common medication used to treat asthma is albuterol. It’s a short-acting drug that provides almost instant relief during an asthma attack. It can be delivered through either an inhaler or a nebulizer.

Nebulizers and asthma

Nebulizer treatments usually require you to wear a mask for 5 to 10 minutes. During this time, you just need to sit still. For small children who have trouble staying still, this might be a problem. If they don’t sit still or keep the mask on long enough, they may not get all the medication they need.

Inhalers and asthma

It takes under 30 seconds to use an inhaler. They’re also smaller, easier to transport, and don’t need electricity. However, studies have shown that up to 92 percent of people with asthma use their inhaler incorrectly. That means they aren’t getting the right dose of medication. Sometimes you can fix this with spacers. These are long plastic tubes that hold the medication after it’s been pumped. It stays in the spacer until you’re ready to inhale.

While nebulizers are easier to use, some research shows that children prefer inhalers with spacers, which increases their chances of getting the proper dose. Even babies can use inhalers with a spacer and a mask.

Inhaler treatments are also less expensive than nebulizer treatments. According to the Allergy, Asthma & Sinus Center, each dose of albuterol in a nebulizer costs $2.00 to $2.50. Albuterol in an inhaler only costs 40 to 50 cents per dose.

Other asthma treatments

In addition to inhalers and nebulizers, there are several other treatment options for asthma. For allergy-related asthma, allergy medications such as antihistamines and decongestants may help.

For serious cases of asthma, you may need bronchial thermoplasty. This treatment involves your doctor heating the inside of the lungs’ airways with an electrode to limit their ability to tighten.

Breathing exercises and natural remedies may also provide relief. Natural remedies include:

COPD is a group of inflammatory lung diseases that restrict airflow to the lungs. Emphysema and chronic bronchitis are two of the most common types of COPD.

Bronchodilators and corticosteroids are two common breathing treatments for COPD. Bronchodilators help open up your airways. Corticosteroids reduce inflammation. They’re often used together in COPD treatment.

Both bronchodilators and corticosteroids can be taken through either an inhaler or nebulizer. While some studies suggest that nebulizers may be more effective at treating COPD symptoms, there isn’t enough evidence to say that one is better than the other.

There’s some evidence that combining nebulizer treatments during the morning and evening with midday inhaler use may be a better treatment option for COPD.

Other treatments for COPD include:

  • lung therapies, such as oxygen therapy
  • pulmonary rehabilitation programs
  • surgery in some severe cases

Pneumonia is a lung infection that’s caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi. While most cases of pneumonia can be treated with rest, antibiotics, or over-the-counter medications, some cases require hospitalization. If you’re hospitalized with pneumonia, you might receive a breathing treatment through a nebulizer.

When choosing a breathing treatment, work with your doctor to find something that’ll work for both your condition and personal preferences. It’s important to consider the side effects, maintenance requirements, and effectiveness of each treatment option.

Side effects

Breathing treatment side effects are usually related to the medication, rather than the method used. For example, albuterol can cause:

  • shakiness
  • nervousness
  • headaches
  • irritability
  • heart palpitations

However, albuterol may have fewer side effects when taken through an inhaler.

Nebulizers are often used in an emergency setting because they deliver the medication faster. They can also increase some side effects, such as anxiety and tremor.

Ask your doctor about any possible side effects before you start a breathing treatment. They may be able to offer tips on ways you can reduce them.

Maintenance requirements

To work properly, nebulizers and inhalers need regular cleaning. Each nebulizer and inhaler comes with its own manual that includes cleaning instructions as well as storage requirements. Some inhalers and nebulizers need to be stored in certain temperature ranges to work.

It’s also important to check the expiration date on nebulizers and inhalers. Most last for about one year before needing to be replaced.


Nebulizers and inhalers are usually very effective at treating breathing problems. Inhalers are just as effective as nebulizers if the inhaler is used correctly. However, many people don’t use them correctly, which makes them less effective. Make sure your doctor demonstrates exactly how you should be using your nebulizer or inhaler before you take it home.

Nebulizers and inhalers are both very effective breathing treatments, but they’re often used incorrectly. This makes them less effective at treating respiratory issues. Work with your doctor to find a breathing treatment that fits best with your both your medical needs and lifestyle.